News report charges U.S. with conducting illegal operations from German soil

McClatchy Foreign StaffNovember 15, 2013 

— The breach in U.S.-German relations seemed likely to widen Friday after a joint German newspaper and television investigation titled “Secret War” reported that American intelligence and military use this nation for “tapping, code cracking, recruiting informants, observing suspects, kidnapping and abducting foreign enemies.”

What’s more, the reports added: “The Germans have known all that for years.”

The reports come at a time when German-U.S. relations have been taking a beating. In June, documents released by former National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has spied on the electronic communications of tens of millions of Germans. In October, the news broke that the NSA had even been tapping the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for years, even before she became chancellor.

The resulting freefall in American popularity was tracked by a poll by national German public television station ARD. That poll showed that only 35 percent of Germans still see the United States as a good partner, down from 49 percent in July. The poll also found that 61 percent of Germans now see the United States as an untrustworthy partner and that 60 percent of Germans consider Snowden – who has been called a traitor by American officials – to be a hero. President Barack Obama’s star has fallen fast. In April 2010, 88 percent of Germans said they liked his politics; the new poll put that number at 43 percent.

The news organizations – the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and German public television station NDR, two of Germany’s most respected – say that the eight reports they published Friday were just the first of many that will come in the next few weeks.

To appreciate the scope and impact of just those installments, you don’t have to read even a word of the reports, or watch video reports. All you really have to do is take a look at the U.S. Embassy’s rebuttal, which was released within hours of the reports’ first publication.

The statement bluntly dismisses the reports.

“The article in today’s Sueddeutscher (sic) Zeitung, ‘The Secret War: Germany and the Role of America,’ is full of half-truths, speculation and innuendo,” the statement begins.

It goes on to note: “For many decades there have indeed been military facilities in Germany for our mutual security under Status of Forces Agreements, but the fact that they are closed to the public in no way implies that illegal activities are being organized there.”

And the statement goes after several of the stronger allegations in the series.

“Although we do not comment on specifics, as a matter of policy the United States does not engage in kidnapping and torture, and does not condone or support the resort to such illegal activities by any nation. Germany is one of the closest allies and partners of the United States, cooperating in areas ranging from counterterrorism to international economic sustainability. Outrageous claims like those raised in this article are not helpful to the German-American relationship and to our shared global agenda.”

The newspaper was unchastened: “The American Embassy also comments and rejects the reports as innuendo. They are stating the United States ‘are not kidnapping and torturing on principle.’ This is a daring claim. Only seven months ago a commission made up of Democrats and Republicans called it ‘undeniable’ that the United States tortured inmates following the terror attacks of 2001. Even President Barack Obama said in 2009 that the American practice of waterboarding was torture.”

The newspaper said almost 20 journalists had worked on the series, and that it was more than a year in the making.

The English-language version of the series begins:

“Tapping Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone would seem like an outrageous breach of trust – except that there have been so many other, deadlier and lesser-known, breaches of trust wrought by the U.S. in Germany in recent years.

“Where to begin? There’s the worldwide secret drone war – a massive break with international law. Then there’s the large and growing shadow army of private spies. And, finally, the asylum seekers, whose knowledge is unwittingly used to drop bombs in their home countries.

“The worst part? Germany doesn’t even seem to mind.”

The series says, for instance, that the $3 billion a year the United States spends in Germany pays for everything from bases for the 43,000 U.S. soldiers stationed here to the American drone campaign in Africa. According to the newspaper’s English-language version, the program works like this:

“First they practice with their 57 drones getting ready for the real thing. When they receive intelligence on potential targets and suspected terrorists, they deliver that information to U.S. intelligence officers, also based in Germany. And these soldiers are responsible when innocent civilians in Africa die as a result. Moral issues aside, the fact remains: without these bases in Germany, the U.S.’s ‘war on terror’ would not be the well-oiled machine it is now. Germany acts as the headquarters for secret wars in Africa, the European hub for CIA operations and the training ground for drone attacks worldwide. And Germany’s location is indispensable.”

Thilo Marauhn, an international law expert at Giessen University, in an interview on ARD, said the series exposes some potential problems for Germany.

“If the U.S. forces launch such operations from German soil, Germany could become complicit in a violation of international law if they don’t do anything against it,” he said.

The series uses the example of Khaled al Masri, a German-Lebanese whom the CIA in 2003 confused for a terrorist and kidnapped while he was on vacation in Macedonia. Masri would later testify that he was tortured while being interrogated in Afghanistan, and eventually dropped in a forest at night. Years later, Macedonia paid him restitution for not preventing his kidnapping. The series notes that this operation was run by a private American security company called CSC that has an office in Germany.

The series also reported that in 2007, the United States decided to base Africom – the military command overseeing operations in Africa – in Germany after being rejected by 18 African countries. The reports note that at the time, the news was full of stories about the U.S. mistreatment of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the CIA’s waterboarding of suspected terrorists who’d been held in secret CIA jails. African nations deemed the command too hot to touch, but German officials asked only “where and when” the new command would be opened.

In the years since, the stories allege, the command, which is based in Stuttgart, has been used to run a drone campaign in Africa that many say violates both German and international law. Conducting any form of execution from German soil violates the German constitution.

McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this report.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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